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[Page 214]

Chapter 18

With the Remnants of Refugees in Kovno, 1945

I decided to travel to Kovno. On the way, I stopped again in Ponevezh.

“Well, what has happened to your house and the whole valuable property of yours?” the elder Yudelevich asked me. “You say there was an orchard of more than a hundred trees; how does it look? Is there anything there to look at?”

“Yes, everything is in its place-the house, the orchard, the trees,” I replied. “There is an extraordinarily good harvest this year; the trees are loaded with fruit, almost breaking the branches. The orchard has never had such a huge harvest. Oh, they will have a very good time there, the new owners.”

“Well, and what do you intend to do?”

“What do I intend to do? Nothing. I am leaving soon for Kovno.”

“And the house, with the orchard and fruit, are you just going to abandon it? You can take it back, after all, since it is yours!”

“What would I do with it? Take it with me? Stay there and be the boss over it? The devil take them, and may they choke on the house, the orchard, and the fruit! I don't need it.”

“You are an insane person, out of your mind,” he assailed me. “Do you intend to just leave it behind for them, the cutthroats? And you have no need to live, to eat, to drink, to wear clothes? No one will give you any of those things for nothing. An apple is like gold now. People tear it out of your hands. You could pick the apples, bring them to Ponevezh, and sell them. After all, now you have to begin life anew.”

“Could be that you are right, my dear friend,” I answered. “But I can't do it.”

“That person is nothing else than crazy,” Yudelevich complained, shrugging his shoulders, “not wanting to tear out of their hands what is his.”

The huge Kovno railroad station I knew so well wasn't there. A bomb

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had destroyed it, and German war prisoners were clearing the rubble. But when I went into the center of the town, everything was the same. The town was whole, lively, in motion, bathed in sunshine. The businesses and shops were open, all as they had been before the war. Many military officers wandered through the streets, along with civilians in military or half-military clothing. Many half-holiday idlers were taking a walk on Laisvess Alley. Here and there, a house, a wall, or a government building was lying in ruins.

I was walking with my soldier's backpack and looking for a familiar face, a familiar house, where I could go and make inquiries. I was looking at the numbers of the houses when suddenly, “Halt! Why are you not saluting? Don't you know that military officers in town must be polite and salute in the military manner?”

There at the corner of Laisvess Alley and Maronya Street stood a lieutenant with a few soldiers, apparently a patrol group from the town command center. I explained that I had only just arrived home and was, it seemed, lost in thought. One of the group answered, “A military officer should never dare to be lost in thought! Well, give me your papers and come with me to the command center.”

I showed him my documents, but I had no inclination to go to the command center. I turned to the lieutenant and spoke to him from the heart. “I've been in every rotten corner and concentration camp, in the woods, in the partisan battalion at the front lines. And then I come back to my town, and a fine welcome I encounter from you people! Is that right, comrade lieutenant? No, it is not right!”

The lieutenant smiled, looked over my papers, and gave them back to me. He said, “Go to your home and get a couple of weeks of good, sound sleep. But remember, you are still a soldier as long as you don't have civilian documents.”

I looked, I sought, and what more is there to say? I met a family I knew, Dushnitski, recently returned from Russia. At their house, I found a small corner where I could sleep. It was a new world I had descended upon, the greenhorn from the woods.

The next day, I took a walk to Laisvess Alley, and there, at that very same old gathering place, just before evening, I met a number of Jewish men and women, mostly surviving individuals. What a peculiar and

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multicolored weaving of human experiences, feelings, thoughts, and desires! This was the first large group of the “remnants of refugees” I had encountered in Kovno, and what I found most memorable about it was just that kind of fluttering mixture of souls and colors.

Various and different-thinking were those who had returned from Russia. Even more different were those who had escaped from the concentration camps, and different in still other ways were those who had survived in the woods, in the military, or in a hiding place. But I noticed one thing was the same in everyone, and it stuck out in everyone's soul: All wanted to live, to get pleasure out of life, to build a life, a home, all over again, from the beginning. But how to do it, where, and on what foundations that, no one knew. These were subjects that everyone touched upon cautiously in the surrounding postwar landlessness, in the midst of the bloody destruction and their broken-down Jewish life.

And I, too, was becoming more and more overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings, of the kind that used to pop into my mind not so long ago like a dream, a fantasy, an impossibility.

People whispered quietly to one another, and in secret. Those who knew each other entrusted things to one another; people talked themselves out; and I felt, as others did, how new and even unbelievable it all was. Be quiet, everyone said. One does not talk about such things out loud; one doesn't tell...

I learned that it was not a fantasy. People had indeed taken risks, traveled, flown in airplanes, and some had fallen into prisons or been sent to Siberia. Others had crossed over borders and through countries and were on their way to a new land, to a new life.

Well-worked-out strategies were already being passed along: what to take for the journey and how to repatriate oneself, steal across borders, travel through lands and zones. One needed to have money, it was said, and not just a little money. One would obtain the money, but it wasn't that easy. On the contrary, it was difficult, very difficult, risky and even life threatening. But you would talk it over with friends; you would prepare yourself; you would quietly sell off everything you owned and buy what you needed, and then you would leave.

And more and more did leave. Only yesterday, one had seen them, and today they had already disappeared from the horizons of Kovno and

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Vilna, Chaim, ltzik, Boruch, Yankl, and dozens and even hundreds of others. This was the mood among Jews, among the surviving remnants of refugees. They wanted to run, steal across borders, and drag themselves over uncertain roads to a new life in the invisible distance.

I was curious to see the former ghetto of Kovno, over in Slovodka, on the other side ofVilye. The great bridge had been destroyed, so one had to go across the river in a small boat, or go a very long way around and cross on a wooden bridge. I took the small boat over the river, and soon I was walking through the labyrinth of the streets and alleyways of Slovodka.

Seen from the front, the streets and houses were scarcely damaged at all. But further along and deeper into the area where, until recently, a few thousand Jews had lived, not one intact house or wall remained. Everything, house by house, the Germans, with their Lithuanian and Latvian assistants, had torn up with dynamite, burned down, or otherwise destroyed, just before their retreat from Kovno in July 1944. And there more than three and a half thousand Jews who had been left in the Kovno ghetto were shot, burned, asphyxiated by smoke, and buried under debris-entire families, men and women and children, who had, in the course of many long months, built “secure” hiding places, “bunkers” under their homes and cellars.

The bloodthirsty, mad beasts had found out about the hidden Jews, but had been unable to get them out of their bunkers. So they had simply demolished that entire section ofKovno. The protruding chimneys, pieces of walls, burned and deformed iron cots, and other debris comprised a mute yet screaming testimony.

But I also heard a living witness in the deathly stillness, a voice that carried all the way across the wide expanse of destruction. I saw an elderly woman sitting on a stone and weeping inconsolably. I tried to comfort her, and thereupon the woman expressed the bitterness of her heart. “Right here, my last two little birds met their death. Right here, under the house. What are you talking about? What are you saying? How can there be any hope, how can they still be found, and be able to call out to me, when I know for certain that they remained hidden in a bunker with a couple dozen other Jews, and no one came out alive? Oh, how well I know that! I wish I did not know it.

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“I was, after all, also hidden in there. I went out to get water, and they caught me, dragged me off to Germany, held me in captivity in all kinds of places. I got over a severe case of typhus, I nearly expired from hunger and cold and pain, and, as you can see, I remained alive. Why do I need my life? My older son was shot, over there, during the seventh round. My husband and our two youngest children died during the ninth round and the so-called children action, and then the last ones were asphyxiated and burned right here. Not even an ash remains of them, and I must still live and walk around. I must tear at my wounds and suffer. Why do I need my life? I am a superfluous person in the world, superfluous for God and for mankind.”

For weeks, I wandered around, without work, without a goal, and without the will to do anything. Yes, true, I did start to do something: In the first days after my arrival in Kovno, I tried to outfit myself as a civilian, in a coat and pants and a pair of shoes. In my papers, it was specifically written that I must procure civilian clothing. I went off to where you had to go, addressed the highest-ranking official, showed him my papers, told him my background, and demanded what was coming to me.

“Yes, my dear friend, you must get all of that,” he said patiently, “and, of course, you must have it right away. But there are already a lot of people waiting for those things. There is more than enough for everybody, and if we run out, the factories will simply produce more. How long will that take? Who can tell? But here, write down your name and leave it with me, and we will notify you.”

I said I must immediately have at least a jacket and a pair of pants. He wrote an address on a piece of paper and said, “Go to the director of the supply base.”

There I started all over again. The director looked at me with indifferent eyes and finally clapped his hands. “In order to get rid of you, he sends you to me. Here is the truth, my dear friend. I cannot supply you with anything at all. Go off to camp store number ten, or number six, or number twelve, and there you will get things.”

I spilled out my anger and resentment in stores number ten, six, and twelve. But what good did my shouting and threats do? The directors of the stores just smiled and shrugged their shoulders. I did accomplish

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a little something. I became richer with two pieces of aromatic soap, a spool of black thread, three needles, and five razor blades, all at cheap prices. And I consoled myself and rejoiced that, after all, one cannot expect to become wealthy all at once, or to jump into an outfit all at once. It is good to begin with a couple of pieces of aromatic soap and a needle and thread, and afterwards work one's way up to a coat and boots, and other things as well. Everything comes with time.

If I had hoped to find, in my former dwelling in Kovno, any things of a household nature, such as clothing or furniture, I was absolutely deceiving mysel£ I visited that house where I once lived like a human among humans, with a family, with warmth and affection. Strangers were living there now, and all my household goods had been scattered and removed. There was only one thing I recognized, and that was a large, broad-branched fig tree in a flowerpot, which a grandmother had once nurtured with shaky, caring hands. Nothing else remained of that house, that family.

And if, during the first days after my return to Kovno, I was thinking about taking up my previous line of work or some other occupation, and about settling in a place of my own-if I was thinking that way, those thoughts disappeared. How could anyone build a new life on an endless cemetery? It would be a life standing on its head, upside down. It would be a crippled life, reversed, with its foundation on the outside. How could one build that kind of life?

And with such feelings, hundreds and thousands of the remnants of refugees were overwhelmed and persuaded to leave. They wanted to reach a new life in a new land, and they actually did it. Not all of them, of course, only those who possessed enough courage and determination and, perhaps, recklessness.

I, too, was overwhelmed and persuaded to leave, persuaded from head to feet. I already had a goal before my eyes, and I knew there was nothing that would stop me. I had once again torn myself away from a frozen and discouraged state. I had new strength. We, a group of friends, were getting ready to leave Lithuania. But how would I get the means, the money, for such a long, drawn-out adventure? Without money, and without clothing and food, and without many other things, I could not stir from the spot.

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Should I go and get my “inheritance,” the houses and the orchard, and sell them? Yes, it could be done, through the courts. I would have to seek a judgment, bring witnesses, testifY that I was the lone surviving inheritor. I would have to grease some palms, make out documents, and look for a buyer. I would have to do more greasing, create bill-of-sale documents, and then give it all away for about one-fifth of its worth. I knew a few people who had already done such things, and others who were doing them now. The process typically dragged on for many months. It might even take years.

It was also possible just to let it go. And that's what I wanted to do. My nerves could not handle getting involved in a lawsuit about inheritance and property; I could not bear to remain once more in a state of waiting. Let the inheritance go with the wind and smoke, abandoned; let it disappear like everything else! I couldn't stay any longer.

But still, where would I get the means for my journey? And then I remembered what the elder Yudelevich had said, his argument that I could at least pick the apples from my orchard, sell them, and make a handsome few rubles profit. “Apples, they say, are as good as gold” was what my old friend had said to me. Yes, that was the way to go.

 

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